WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump tried on Tuesday to calm a storm over his failure to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, saying he misspoke in a joint news conference in Helsinki on Monday.
Trump stunned the world by shying away from criticizing the Russian leader for Moscow’s actions to undermine the election and cast doubt on U.S. intelligence agencies, prompting calls by some U.S. lawmakers for tougher sanctions and other actions to punish Russia.
“I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t,’ ” Trump told reporters at the White House, more than 24 hours after his appearance with Putin. “The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.’ ”
Trump, who had been given numerous opportunities to publicly rebuke Putin in Helsinki, praised the Russian leader during the news conference for his “strong and powerful” denial of the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russian state meddled in the election.
Although he faced pressure from critics, allied countries and even his own staff to take a tough line, Trump spoke not a single disparaging word in public about Moscow on any of the issues that have brought relations between the two nuclear powers to the lowest ebb since the Cold War.
Republicans and Democrats accused him of siding with an adversary rather than his own country.
Trump said on Tuesday he had complete faith in U.S. intelligence agencies and accepted their conclusions, although he insisted Russia’s actions had no impact on the outcome.
The political firestorm over his performance at the Helsinki news conference has engulfed the administration and spread to his fellow Republicans, eclipsing most of the frequent controversies that have erupted during Trump’s turbulent 18 months in office.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that Russia was not a friend of the United States and warned against a repeat of the 2016 election meddling.
“There are a lot of us who fully understand what happened in 2016 and it really better not happen again in 2018,” McConnell said.
Some lawmakers said they would seek remedies against Russia in Congress.
Several senators from both parties backed tougher sanctions on Russia, but it was unclear if Republican congressional leaders would support such a move or what new sanctions might be crafted.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who called Russia’s government “menacing,” said he would consider additional sanctions on Russia and reiterated his support for U.S. intelligence findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
Congress overwhelmingly passed a sanctions law last year targeting Moscow for election meddling and for its actions in Ukraine and Syria. In April, that law led the U.S. Treasury to impose major sanctions on Russian officials and oligarchs, in one of Washington’s most aggressive moves to punish Moscow.
Other lawmakers have suggested passing resolutions voicing support for intelligence agencies, or spending more to enhance election security and prevent cyberattacks.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said congressional leaders were searching for the most effective response.
“We’re trying to figure out what would be an appropriate way to push back,” Corker told reporters. “You know the president can do more damage in 15 minutes at a press conference than we can undo in six months of passing resolutions.”
Corker said “the first step” will be hearing from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who will testify before Congress on Russia next week.
“We don’t want to do a ‘ready, fire, aim’ thing. We want to think through what we do so that it benefits our country,” Corker said.